Category Archives: Inequality

Reflections on ICTs, the SDGs and innovation adoption


The contrast between attending a series of side events around the UN General Assembly in New York immediately following a marvellous two weeks in India has made me reflect again on the rhetoric and reality of using ICTs for development, especially in the interests of the poorest and most marginalised.

Contrast

My latest book, Reclaiming Information and Communication Technologies for Development (OUP, 2017) provides an overview of the interests underlying the use of ICTs for “development”, and what needs to be done so that the poorest and most marginalised can indeed benefit from ICTs.  However, working in India, and then listening to the rhetoric of the rich and famous in New York makes me wonder whether I was sufficiently vehement in what I wrote in that book.  It also makes me return to thinking about the research I did 30 years ago on innovation adoption by farmers.  This convinced me that Rogers’ well accepted theoretical arguments around innovation adoption, the S-shaped curve (see below), and the classification of people into categories (innovators, early adopters, really majority, late majority and laggards) is fundamentally flawed.

Rogers

There was very widespread agreement amongst the world’s leaders meeting in New York last week – and most other people as well – that ICTs can contribute very significantly to delivering the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and that these will eliminate poverty.  The challenge, according to them, is how to connect the “next billion” to the Internet (mobile broadband), or in Rogers’ terminology the “late majority”.  As I have argued elsewhere, this will actually further increase global inequality, and most attention should instead be paid  to connecting the “first” (because they are most important) billion, or what Rogers termed the “laggards”.

The interests underlying connecting the next billion

The global focus on rolling out broadband to deliver the SDGs (even if that was possible) is not primarily in the interest of the world’s poorest people.  Instead it is mainly driven by:

  • private sector corporations and companies, from ISPs and mobile operators to the powerful multi-service giants such as Facebook and Google, who are all primarily interested in expanding their markets and profits;
  • national governments, eager to reduce costs through the use of digital technologies (although this is often a flawed assumption), as well as to control  “their” citizens;
  • UN agencies, keen to have a role to play in delivering the SDGS; and
  • NGOs, wanting to publicise their work more widely, and continue to receive project funding for their ICT-based initiatives.

These have little to do with the real interests and needs of the poorest and most marginalised.  The language of global corporations and governments is nearly always about providing access and creating demand for digital services.  But why should poor people necessarily want to go online?

Reasons not to be online…

Masai welcomeI recall a wonderful conversation a couple of years ago with a Maasai chief in Tanzania. He was speaking with a group of techies about the use of mobile devices, and they were trying to persuade him of the value of mobile phones, even just to call his friends in a village the other side of the hills.  He, wisely, remained unconvinced.  For him, walking across the hills, enjoying the landscape, spending time experiencing the physicality of nature, and just thinking about life, were a crucial part of going to, and speaking with, his friend in the next village.

For the wise poor and marginalised, there are many reasons for not being connected:

  • they remain outside a world where increasingly all human actions are monetised by  profit seeking corporations who use digital technologies to track their users and generate profit from selling such information;
  • they remain free from the prying eyes of governments, whose actions may not be in their interests;
  • there is little of interest to them in solving their real needs on the Internet;
  • they do not have to spend large amounts of their very limited cash on paying for digital services that they do not really need;
  • they do not suffer from the increasing amount of online abuse and harassment from trolls and others seeking to make them suffer;
  • their small amounts of cash are not subject to online theft from hackers of mobile money systems;
  • they do not become entrapped in a social media world, where every tweet or blog can adversely influence  their thoughts and senses of well-being;
  • they do not suffer from endless messages or e-mails, the senders of which increasingly expect an immediate response; and
  • they can enjoy being truly human in the analogue physical world (of all the senses), rather than trading this for the synthetic, and much less adequate digital virtual world (of mainly the two senses of sight and sound).

To be sure, there are many advantages of being connected, but the above list (and there are numerous other reasons that could be added) emphasises that there are also many negative aspects of Internet use, especially for the poor and marginalised.

The poor are not ignorant laggards who need to be convinced to go online…

One of the fundamental flaws of the widely accepted innovation adoption model proposed by Rogers is that it classifies people into “heroic” innovators and “ignorant” laggards; it is something about the people that influences whether or not they adopt an innovation, such as mobile broadband.  Such a view is held by many of those who seek to promote the global roll-out of the Internet: those who use the latest technologies are seen as being wise, whereas those who do not are seen as being lazy, ignorant laggards.

Rogers’ formulation is fundamentally problematic because it suggests that it is something about the people themselves that determine whether or not they are leaders or laggards.  This largely ignores the structural factors that determine whether people adopt something new.  With the adoption of agricultural innovations, for example, many poor people act perfectly rationally, and choose the option that they consider suits them best.  Poor people often make very rational, wise decisions not to adopt an innovation, often because the innovation increases the risks of crop failure, and they cannot afford this risk.  Moreover, if they do not have access to innovations it is scarcely surprising that they do not adopt them; the spatial distribution of outlets for herbicides, hybrid seeds or inorganic fertilizers is the main factor influencing whether people adopt them, rather than something about their propensity to innovate.  In the ICT sector, it is hardly surprising that people living in areas without electricity, let alone connectivity, do not see the need to have the latest generation of smartphone connected to the Internet.

If progress is to be made in helping poor and marginalised people benefit from the Internet, it is essential to do away with this flawed model of innovation adoption, and understand instead the structural factors and interests underlying why wise poor people, who know the contexts of their poverty very well, do not choose to adopt such technologies.  The rich elites of the world could begin by trying to understand the real conditions of poverty, rather than simply believing that ICTs can eliminate poverty through the SDGs.

Development in the interests of the poor

children 2ICTs will never deliver on reducing inequalities in the world unless there is a fundamental sea-change in the attitudes of those leading the global private sector corporations that currently shape the world of the Internet.  It is perfectly logical for them to sign up to the SDGs formulated by the UN system, and to seek to show that expanding their digital empires will necessarily deliver the SDGs.  This is a powerful additional weapon in their armoury of market expansion and profit generation.  The problem is that these agendas will continue to increase inequality, and as yet remarkably little attention has been paid to how ICTs might actually help deliver SDG10.  Until corporations and governments really treat the link between ICTs and inequality seriously, peoples of the world will become every more divided, and if poverty is defined in a relative sense then poverty will actually increase rather than decrease as a result of roll out of the Internet.

 

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Filed under Africa, agriculture, Asia, Development, Education, Entrepreneurship, ICT4D, India, Inequality, Rural, SDGs, Urban

Indexing “Reclaiming ICT4D”


I always enjoy indexing my own books, although it can at times be brain-numbingly tedious!  So, I have spent the last few days proof-reading Reclaiming ICT4D, and at the same time constructing the index!  It has taken much longer than I had anticipated, but I am delighted that it really does capture the essence of what I have tried to write about.  It is always fascinating to see the juxtaposition of words: “holistic” next to “honour killings”; “operators” next to “oppression”; and “poverty” next to “power”…  However, having just finished it, I now wonder just how many people ever actually read indexes!

Anyway, for those who want to know what the book is really about, I am therefore posting the index for everyone to see if their favourite ICT4D topic is included – and a glimpse of part of it is shared below!  I very much hope that you find something of interest in it!

Now it will only be a few months for OUP to print the book!

index

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Filed under Books, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Universities

Reclaiming ICT4D – the Preface


Three days before Christmas, the page proofs of Reclaiming ICT4D have arrived.  At one level, this is an amazing Christmas present, but at another I am not sure I am looking forward to the arduous task of going through them and checking for any errors over the holiday season!

On reading the beginning of the Preface again, I hope that the book does indeed fulfill the task I set myself.  It does, though, seem a fitting commentary on the tasks that still need to be done in the field of ICT4D, especially this Christmas time:

This book is about the reasons why poor and marginalized people have not yet benefited sufficiently from the widespread and pervasive expansion of information and communication technologies (ICTs) into most aspects of human life over the last quarter century.  It is about the inequalities that the use of these technologies have enhanced, and the risks to us all that these are creating.  However, it remains a book of hope; hope that by better understanding the interests underlying these increasing inequalities, wise people of good will may be able to work collectively together to help the poorest and most marginalized use ICTs to enhance and improve their lives.

            Much has changed in the use of ICTs for ‘development’ (ICT4D) since my last edited book on the subject was published in 2009 (Unwin, 2009).  In that book I laid out the case for why the focus of ICT4D should be on reducing inequalities as well as increasing economic growth, and this remains a core theme of this new book.  However, I was much more optimistic a decade ago that ICTs would indeed be used effectively to enhance the lives of poor people.  My previous book thus included chapters by leading authorities in their fields about the many ways through which ICTs were indeed being used to improve the quality and quantity of education, to transform health delivery, to enhance rural and agricultural incomes, and to enable better government.  Most of those examples remain valid, and there is indeed much good work being done by civil society, governments and the private sector through which the poor can indeed benefit.  This has been widely reported in the many books and papers that have been published over the last decade on the subject.   However, as the present book argues, in this time the rich have got very much richer through the use of ICTs, and the poor have become relatively poorer.  I am impatient and frustrated by this increasing inequality, and so rather than emphasising all of the oft-cited examples of the benefits of ICTs, I concentrate here on the interests underlying why ICTs are being used in this way.  Yet, I still retain a belief that these technologies can indeed help empower poor people and this must never be forgotten through the darker sections of the book“.

It is so good to read this at last again in the final stages of production!

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Partnering to protect children and youth online


I am so delighted to have been asked by the ITU and Child Helpline International to moderate their important session on “Partnering to protect children and youth” at the ITU’s Telecom World gathering in Bangkok on 15th November.  The abuse of children online is without question one of the darkest aspects of the use of ICTs, and it is great to see the work that so many child helplines are doing globally to counter and respond to this.

The main objective of the session is to highlight the work done by a range of ICT stakeholders to initiate and support child helplines in various parts of the world.  The session will begin with introductory remarks from Houlin Zhao (the Secretary General of the ITU) and Professor Jaap Doek (Chair of the Board of Child Helpline international).  This will be followed by a short video entitled No child should be left behind, and then Jenny Jones (Director Public Policy, GMSA) will launch new child online protection guidelines for child helplines.  Following this, Doreen Bogdan-Martin (Chief of Strategic Planning and Membership,  ITU) will provide a short overview of the joint campaign being run by the ITU and Child Helpline International to protect children and youth.  She will also outline the process whereby case studies submitted to an online consultation organised by the ITU were selected by a specialist Jury.

I will then moderate what I hope will be a lively and useful panel discussion that brings together the following people and initiatives that were selected through the above process:

  • Anthony Fitzgerald, Kids Helpline Manager, representing Optus from Australia;
  • Ola-jo Tandre, Director and Head of Social Responsibility, Telenor Group;
  • Mofya Chisala, Strategic Analyst, Zambia Information and Communication Technology Authority; and
  • Enkhbat Tserendoo from the Communications Regulatory Commission of Mongolia, Mobicom

As moderator, I hope to be drawing out general conclusions about what works, as well as the pitfalls to avoid, from the experiences of these examples of good practice from many different parts of the world.  I very much hope that this will help those in other countries who are thinking about setting up child helplines, and that these experiences will also help those already running such helplines to improve the services that they offer children and young people.

Working together in partnership, we must do much more to counter the abuse of children online, and child helplines are an important element of the overall package of initiatives that must be implemented to achieve this.

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Filed under Development, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, Inequality

Perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment through mobile devices in Pakistan


Together with Dr. Bushra Hassan, and building on my research earlier this year on how people in Pakistan use mobile devices to express their identities, we have developed a survey on people’s perceptions and experiences of sexual harassment through mobile devices in the country.  This is a sensitive and difficult subject, and we are eager to have responses from as many people as possible.  I do hope that readers of this post will share the details through their networks, and if they are Pakistani will complete it themselves. The survey is available until the end of November 2016 at https://rhul.onlinesurveys.ac.uk/sexual-harassment-through-mobile-devices-in-pakistan.

survey-pakistan

Thanks so much in anticipation.

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Filed under 'phones, Ethics, ICT4D, Inequality, Pakistan

Information and communication technologies: resolving inequalities?


It was great to be invited to give a lecture in the Societat Catalana de Geografia in Barcelona on the subject of “Information and Communication Technologies: resolving inequalities?” on Tuesday 4th October in the Ciclo de Conferencias Programa Jean Monnet convened by my great friend Prof. Jordi Marti Henneberg on the theme of Los Desafîos de lintegración Europea.  This was such an honour, especially since I had the privilege of following the former President of the European Union Josep Borrell’s excellent lecture earlier in the day on El Brexit y sus consequencias en la goberabilidad de la Unión Europea.

lectureThis was an opportunity for me to explore the relevance to the European context of some of my ideas about ICTs and inequality gleaned from research and practice in Africa and Asia.  In essence, my argument was that we need to balance the economic growth agenda with much greater focus on using ICTs to reduce inequalities if we are truly to use ICTs to support greater European integration.  To do this, I concluded by suggesting  that we need to concentrate on seven key actions:

  • working with the poor rather than for the poor
  • pro-poor technological innovation – not the “next billion” but the “first” billion
  • governments have a  key role to play through the use of regulation as facilitation in the interests of the poor and marginalised
  • crafting of appropriate multi-sector partnerships
  • managing security and resilience against the dark side
  • enhancing learning and understanding, both within governments and by individuals
  • working with the most disadvantaged, people with disabilities, street children, and women in patriarchal societies

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Filed under Europe, ICT4D, ICTs, Inequality, Uncategorized